The Hundred could provide the blueprint English cricket needs – even if it remains a stab in the dark
The Hundred begins with the Draft on Sunday ( PA )
English cricket appears to be developing an addiction to testing itself like never before.
Win a maiden World Cup in home conditions with the expectation of the cricketing world on your shoulders, unprecedented attention on one-day cricket and seemingly all the chips in the right places? Check.
Stir up enough energy and resolve to prevent a Steve Smith-inspired Australia side from claiming a first Ashes series win on English soil since 2001? Ditto.
So after throwing up thrill after spill in the summer of 2019, what surprises does The Hundred, England’s expansive leap into a new-format competition shrouded as much as in mystery and confusion as it is brimming with excitement and innovation, have in store?
Strategic planning doesn't often go hand in hand with unforeseen circumstances, but it is remarkable how often those two polar opposite concepts do coincide. It has been the thorn in the side for sides competing in franchise leagues abroad for so many years – most notably the Indian Premier League – but now it falls upon foreign coaches in England’s county circuit to deal with the very same.
England’s men’s ODI side and the transformation they underwent came about through those same qualities; the meticulous four years of planning and, in the final of the World Cup, reacting in a more convincing way to the most intensely pressurised situations. And the similarities that The Hundred and that particular transformation possess are more conspicuous than initially expected.
Let’s start with the criticism The Hundred received upon its announcement as a revolutionary new concept on the domestic circuit, with many questioning its very intention and purpose with the Vitality T20 Blast bringing waves of new supporters through the turnstiles, the Royal London One-Day Cup afforded another Lord’s showpiece, and the Kia Super League enjoying yet another pivotal year in the growth of women’s cricket.
The same rang true for Eoin Morgan’s side in Australia and New Zealand four years ago, a side that appeared to err on the side of caution and play but not truly contest World Cup matches with intent, purpose, or for that matter direction, in any department.
But fast forward to the days immediately preceding Sunday's Hundred Draft and the detractors seem to have found their own distinct space in the corner and the enthusiasm which could potentially arise from seeing Steve Smith, Kane Williamson, Andre Russell and Kagiso Rabada donning the colours of the eight franchises is shining through.
All the ins and outs of draft terminology may take a while getting used to, with talk of reserve prices, salary bands, “local icons” and the more familiar overseas players just some of the jargon that has been and will continue to be hurled around. But, whisper it quietly, there appears to be more of an established sense of acceptance of the 100-ball format’s new-found place in the county circuit.
Four years down the line for Morgan, a rejuvenated England stepped out onto the field for the opening fixture of a World Cup, brutally relentless with bat in hand, aggressive and shrewd with the ball and exuberant in the field. The 11 players that represented England delivered unprecedented performances, and wowed the spectators while at it.
That is the very crux of the most prominent questions that remain. Can the men Morgan relied on to lead England to glory, and established 50-over and 20-over international stars in general, create that buzz and become accustomed to a format which has no traditional guiding star, no coaching manual and certainly no blueprint on how to approach it?
The Hundred is on its way (Getty for ECB)
Will it allow Joe Root to assume an anchoring role that has been cut out for him in the England set-up? Will he finally give in to the amplified temptation of thrashing and slashing his bat? Will Smith develop a new idiosyncrasy at the crease? How high up the order will coaches be prepared to send destructive players like Andre Russell?
At what stage of the innings will coaches and captains throw the ball to a Jofra Archer, a Trent Boult or a Lasith Malinga? What role will the likes of distinguished T20 spinners Rashid Khan, Shakib al Hasan and Sunil Narine play?
Is there a possibility that we will already be discussing the next Tom Banton? And will there enough overs to see a breakout performer emerge, such as Sandeep Lamichhane and Mujeeb Ur Rahman in the IPL a few years ago?
How will coaches and captains deal with a 25-ball powerplay and when a bowler should deliver five or 10 consecutive deliveries?
While there may be no catchy-name sponsor accompanying the strategic timeout, the way those 150 seconds are used could mirror the tendency in the process of the draft to throw days of homework out of the window and pray that conjuring up and applying a new tactic pays dividends.
On Wednesday, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee will discuss their own schemes and strategies as they too take a unique lurch into the unknown as they sit down to discuss “The Future of English Cricket”.
And while the focus will be their plans of how best to capitalise on the summer that’s gone and boost participation in the sport, it very well may be that the answer, (at the professional level at least) despite the uncertainties that remain, unfolds three days beforehand when the franchises finally fill their rosters.